I’ve started coming up with game ideas for my role-playing group. The following conversation is adapted from the notes I write as I think through the possibilities. Annotations are in italics. Jon, Brian, Doug—warning, spoilers ahead! Everyone else--geek alert!
Jeb: I want a new campaign for my group. What would be cool to run?
Ordinarily, I would involve my players in this discussion, so that it would be something they would find cool to play—but I can’t fit everyone into a blarg post.
Self: How about a campaign set all in one town or city? Players can be from upper crust, working class, street, whatever.
The spark of this campaign is the idea of keeping it in a single city. It seems contained, and players can learn a lot more about it as a setting since they’ll be spending lots of time there.
Jeb: Ok, what kind of city? Fantasy, sci-fi, modern?
Already I’m narrowing things down. The temptation is to make a campaign contain everything ever. That’s too much. Restrict the scope at first and expand it later, once the game is established.
Self: I like fantasy, I think. It’s easier to restrict players to one location if they don’t have starships, cars, etc.
Jeb: Well, how will I restrict them to the city? What keeps them from leaving?
As a GM, I could just say to the players, ‘Don’t leave the city’. But that’s kind of a bummer. Instead I’m setting up their characters to think of the city as the entirety of the world. Maybe later they’ll leave it—but then it will be a monumental decision, like sailing off the edge of the world.
Self: What if the city is on an island? What if the city IS an island, every bit of the land mass covered by the city? The only way off is by boat or swimming.
Jeb: I like that. I also have an image of the city sinking beneath the waves, like Atlantis. In fact, suppose the city is SUBMERSIBLE! That informs all sorts of things about the city itself—construction, architecture, religion, roles of the citizens…
Self: Whoa, whoa, hold up. What if the submersible city—whose cliffs are constructed of steel and whose towers are shaped so that water can flow around them, and whose gardens can be covered by domes and stuff—what if the populace has been slowly dying off, and they have FORGOTTEN THAT THE CITY SINKS? There’s all these vents in the streets, see, where water can come into ballast tanks, but nobody remembers what they’re for. They just go about their daily business, never suspecting that someday the city is gonna sink!
Boom! A huge idea crashed into the mix. I love extrapolating from sudden inspirations like this. Every little detail spawns ten more cool things to investigate, describe, or encounter. Don’t be afraid of big ideas like this; they are all possible in a game! Notice also that Jeb and Self are both coming up with ideas. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.
Jeb: Hang on. Would the players be residents in the city? Or would they be visitors to the island, slowly discovering that the place is a giant submarine?
Notice that now I’m questioning one of the initial assumptions about the whole idea. That’s OK at this stage. Look at all angles and find the story that will be more interesting to your players. Would they rather be outsiders investigating this weird place, or would they prefer to role-play the citizens, trying to live out their lives on a doomed city?
Self: Good question. Could be either, I guess. Ooh!
And now comes some outright thievery.
Self: Remember that Conan story, “Red Nails”? That we read, like, a hundred times? About a lost city in the jungle where the people formed two tribes and have been killing each other off for hundreds of years?
Jeb: No, tell me about it.
Things we have read, movies we have seen, places we have been—all of these inform our imaginations. Let it happen. Plunder your memory for awesome images, plot twists, characters, and settings. Chances are, if you disguise it enough, no one will recognize your source material. I have used the story “Red Nails” as an adventure setting a dozen times in the past because I find it really cool. I don’t try to make the players conform to the storyline, mind you; I set up the situation and let them deal with it their own way. Conan was just a jumping-off point for me, and I jumped with pantherish grace.
Self: Wise-ass. Suppose that’s happening here. The people in this floating city worship a god who provides for them—and the god actually is a magical being who lives in the belly of the city, powering everything. The citizens have to give sacrifices to the god to keep things working. What they don’t know is that there is another race of people below the surface, working on the machinery, seeing to the needs of the god, and consuming the sacrifices given by the surface dwellers. But now the society is breaking down, so the people under the surface—the Engineers—have started coming to the surface looking for sacrifices. They are twisted and mutated from their time below decks. The surface dwellers think they are monsters, and fight back, so now the city is falling apart and the god is dying, and the city is going to sink if something isn’t done.
Jeb: Enter the players! Awesome!
Obviously, there’s a ton of work to be done here to make this into a workable campaign setting, but my process will follow the same lines. In upcoming entries, I’ll ask questions like “What happens when the city submerges?” and “Do any of the natives know what’s going on?” and answer them in ways I find interesting. I’ll draw maps—rough ones are often good enough, but maybe I’ll come up with a few specific locations I can use. And at some point, I’ll introduce the players into the mix, get their perspective, and maybe change things to make it more appealing to them. In fact, maybe I’ll mention it at my game group this week…